From the beginning of the debate over gay marriage, one of the most obvious and oft-repeated falsehoods by advocates and the secular left has had to do with how the legalization of such unions would impact those citizens external to them. The dismissal of the idea that there would be any negative ramifications for such a dramatic policy shift at all is a hallmark of progressivism – as if once the elites have decided something ought to happen, they will allow no possibility that their certainty of its universal goodness be criticized. This is true whether you are talking about the EPA or a VAT, education reforms or housing subsidies, health care policy or interest rates. The rejection of any humility about understanding how decisions within a marketplace work, how people interact, and how the force of government can dramatically change such interactions and decisions overnight is all the more amazing in an age when there are examples of the reasons for such skepticism all around us, all the time.
That’s all the more reason that trusting the people to work out such changes for themselves, removing the force of government except where there exists a clear and compelling interest for its presence, is nearly always the right choice. But what we are seeing in Indiana is what happens where the call of the gay rights movement for equality blends with the priorities of the secular left, which strongly believes people can’t be trusted with the freedom to work things out for themselves. Such freedom is too dangerous, they say, and the unquestioning nature of the modern media mob is so thorough that it allows you to report with a straight face that Indiana’s RFRA will literally allow Satan-worshippers to marry their horses. Congratulations, David Freedlander – when it comes to the parade of horrible hypotheticals, Rick Santorum’s got nothing on you!
Concerns about what would happen to religious people in the post-gay marriage world have always been well-founded. There is an inevitable tension that exists in a world where major institutions of public life, and the people who are members of these institutions, do not believe they should be legally required to participate in unions they deem sinful. Michael Tomasky, as is typical, has the most openly statist assessment of this, as Rob Tracinski notes.
If the government says gay marriage is legal, then it is required for all private citizens to approve of and cooperate with it. That which is not forbidden is mandatory. Now, when we say that gay marriage is legal, what we actually mean is that the government is required to offer and recognize these marriages. But Tomasky assumes that what the state must do, private citizens must do also. If a law binds the actions of the state, it is also binding on Mr. and Mrs. John Q. Public. There is no distinction, in Tomasky’s mind, between government action and private action. It’s that old principle of tolerance: ‘Everything within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.’
Those who believe in religious liberty may be feeling discouraged at what they’re seeing in the current clash, and the battle, as Kevin Williamson frames it, against the private mind. But I am not so sure that the ground will not shift in their favor. Already you have some longtime gay marriage supporters, who have dismissed concerns that religious citizens would be brought to heel by government, questioning their positions. As Michael Barone – who has supported gay marriage for far longer than Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton – notes, this is in conflict with what has been an essential American belief for generations: “The traditional American formula for handling such issues is friendly accommodation of the conscientious beliefs of others. Indiana’s RFRA is in line with this. Forcing people to violate their religious beliefs absent a compelling government interest is not.” And has never been.
It would be one thing if this came after a decision in the other direction on Hobby Lobby – but it doesn’t. The case for gay marriage has succeeded in the public mind because it is based on love of two people for each other, not hate aimed at those with different beliefs than you. The case for using the force of government and an aggressive antagonistic mob to attack believers in all walks of life is far less sympathetic, and the potential for overreach on the part of the left is far greater. As vocal as the secular left is, there is still a hesitation among the broader swathe of Americans as to forcing people to do things they don’t want to do, for any reason. The dismissal of religious bigotry as an unjustifiable reason for such claims is possible to sustain against, say, a random pizza place. But the logic of secular leftists like Tomasky in this regard does not stop at Memories Pizza. It demands enforcement all the way to altars across the country, and it will allow for no dissent.